© 2009 Ray Wong
The Half-Blood Prince is the sixth, or next-to-last, book of the Harry Potter series, which chronicles Harry Potter's sixth year at Hogwarts. It's also more of a bridge between the previous books and his final battle with the dark lord Voldemort.
The story opens merely weeks after the last film, in which Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) was killed by Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). Unbeknownst to the Ministry of Magic, Snape (Alan Rickman) has rejoined the Death Eaters, and he makes an unbreakable vow to protect Draco (Tim Felton), who has been chosen to carry out an important task. And should Draco fail, Snape would complete the task himself. Meanwhile the dark lord and the Death Eaters are now committing crimes in both the magical and Muggle worlds. The wizards and witches of the magical world continue to live in the shadow of Voldemort's terror.
Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) recruits Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) back to Hogwarts to teach potion, while Snape is made the new Dark Art teacher. Dumbledore also tutors Harry privately and shares with him collected memories of Voldemort, who was known as Tom Riddle during his years at Hogwarts. Dumbledore asks Harry to get closer to Slughorn because the latter possesses a crucial memory about Tom Riddle.
Meanwhile, Harry has been studying an old book left by an ex-student who called himself the Half-Blood Prince. The book is filled with remarkable knowledge and advances Harry's skills. When he suspects Draco of harming other students and plotting something against the school, Harry cast an unusual curse he learned from the book, "sectumsempra," against Draco. When he finally obtains Slughorn's memory, he must help Dumbledore to search for an item that could ultimately lead to the defeat of Voldemort.
Daniel Radcliffe (December Boys) has come a long way since winning the role of Harry Potter as an impressionable boy. While he's all grown up and his acting skills have improved, his performance is limited in the film because of his character. In the Half-Blood Prince, Harry Potter appears to be more passive and introspective, thus less proactive and heroic. The other two of the trio, Rupert Grint (Cherrybomb) and Emma Watson (The Tale of Despereaux) seem to have fallen to the side as Harry and Dumbledore take center stage. However, Grint and Watson have some interesting and funny key scenes as the two characters work through their teenage sexual tension.
Michael Gambon (Brideshead Revisited) finally owns the role of Dumbledore. He's in control, and for once he takes a much more important and center role in the story. However, his Dumbledore still reminds me Ian McKellen's Gandolf in The Lord of the Rings. Jim Broadbent (Inkheart) is new to the series, but he has one of the best, nuanced and masterful performances of all the actors. He brings Slughorn to life. On the other hand, Alan Rickman (Bottle Shock) does not have much to do, which is unfortunate because his role and what is becoming of him is so important to the story, especially the next episode of the series.
Writer Steve Kloves (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) has adapted author J. K. Rowling's popular series many times. Interestingly, he did not do The Order of Phoenix and I wonder if the hiatus has hampered him somewhat. Granted, the sixth book of Rowling's series is considered to be the most difficult to adapt, since it lacks a general plot. Kloves's challenges are to streamline the story, trim the fat and strengthen the backbone. Unfortunately, I think Kloves has focused on the wrong parts of the story, namely the blossoming teenage sexuality and some of the key information (such as Tom Riddle's and Snape's backgrounds).
For those who have read the books, that may not seem so bad. In fact, some of the relationship building and character development may be welcome in place of the breakneck pace of plot advancement. However, for those who have not read the book, the screenplay feels slow-moving, and the plot feels flimsy and disjointed. It seems to take forever (over two and half hours) to get to the point. The mystery and eventual reveal seem contrived. There's just not enough plot to sustain the length of the film. Worse, Kloves adds scenes that are not in the book, and takes away key scenes that would have made the story more comprehensible to those non-readers. He also makes Harry Potter much more passive and agreeable than in the book, giving us one of the weakest episodes as far as the hero is concerned.
Director David Yates (Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix) continues to do good work with the series (and he's set to make the last two films). The cinematography is gorgeous, as usual. The special effects are well done. And the acting is over all in great shape. However, the pacing is off, most likely because of the screenplay. While the opening sequences with the Death Eaters attacks are arresting and beautifully rendered, they feel disjointed and inconsequential -- so what is the point of all that? It has no real meaning to the plot. The focus on the teenage angst and relationships also is misguided, especially considering how the main plot is sacrificed.
The climax and ending are anticlimactic as well. Not having read the book, I understand that a key, big fight scene at the end was eliminated in favor of a more resigned climax. The result is a definitely flat finish. Something seems amiss. And the emotional impact of Dumbledore's fate and Snape's reveal isn't there either. We're supposed to be shocked and devastated by both events, but I did not feel either.
So, while I enjoyed the film, and it is beautifully and technically well produced, I have to say this is the least satisfying episode of the series. Emotionally it doesn't achieve its potential. Plot-wise it's thin and unfinished. I feel as if I could completely skip this film and not miss a thing, or that it could have been an one-hour movie instead of three. In other words, I feel that this is only half-blood.
Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Michael Gambon, Jim Broadbent, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Alan Rickman
Director: David Yates
Writers: Steve Kloves (based on J. K. Rowling's novel)
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: PG for scary images, some violence, language and mild sensuality
Running Time: 153 Minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 8
Production – 9
Total – 7.5 out of 10